Gimmick for Governance in Columbia

April 12, 1994

As expressed in this space previously, the Columbia Association suffers from a major-league identity crisis. Often, Columbia representatives seem to like it that way, casting CA in whatever light seems most convenient at the moment. CA is the ginsu knife of homeowner associations: It's a private business. It's a non-profit. It's a government body. It's a civic association.

In fairness, there does seem to be some genuine concern about defining Columbia and encouraging greater resident participation in its affairs. That question is at the heart of a pending decision before the Columbia Council, CA's board of directors -- whether to a allow residents to petition to non-binding referendum issues they feel are important.

Clearly, referendums come under the heading of democracy, and allowing them would suggest a move toward recognizing CA as more of a standard, representative government. With that as a possible result, we are tempted to throw our support behind the referendum movement to nudge the association into the brighter light of good government.

To do so, however, would be inconsistent with our view on such referendums, which is that they dangerously circumvent the normal political process. Residents already have the most powerful referendum at their disposal -- the ability to vote for candidates who best represent their opinions.

As regards Columbia, unfortunately, therein lies the rub. Few people seem to care much about the workings of the CA to vote in city elections, despite the fact that the association collects what amounts to a property tax and will spend $32 million in the coming fiscal year. It is understandable that a few council members, casting about for ways to encourage input, have latched onto referendums.

But the lack of interest shown by residents is more than a case of apathy. Many of the officials who lament the problem are directly to blame for its existence. Too often residents who come forward with legitimate concerns are given short shrift or made to feel like ill-informed malcontents. Residents don't need another vehicle through which to register their wants. They need elected representatives who are less determined to act like corporate overseers and are more responsive to the people who put them in office. In short, they need to show less arrogance and more openness.

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